At last…Clive Barker’s ‘Nightbreed’ (1990/2014)

“At last, the night has a hero” – Cabal strapline.

I’ve written elsewhere about the anticipation my friends and I felt in the months before the release of Clive Barker’s second feature film Nightbreed in the autumn of 1990. Not that we got to see it: an unimpressive box-office in America meant it only got a limited showing in British cinemas. What should have been “the Star Wars of monster movies” vanished almost without trace, slowly gaining cult status in the decades since.

The film’s awkward birth has been well-documented and the booklet in the new limtied edition Blu Ray package from Arrow Video gives us a fresh recap. The film went over budget; key studio staff departed, leaving Barker at the mercy of the bean-counters; the studio demanded extensive re-shoots; the marketing team didn’t understand the film and – disastrously – sold it as a stalk n’ slash thriller. The theatrical version was heavily edited in order to provide a (relatively) logical narrative: a narrative which completely sidelined the very beasts who gave the film its title. Intended to be a faithful adaptation of his 1988 novella Cabal, the film that was released was a bastardised travesty of Barker’s original vision.

Nonetheless there was plenty of advance publicity, to an extent rarely given to a genre film at that time. As well as a comic series by Epic there were two companion volumes, and each was impressive in its own right. Clive Barker’s Nightbreed Chronicles was a glossy large-format guide to the various members of the titular Nightbreed, with striking colour studio photography by Murray Close and a biography of each monster by Barker himself. Clive Barker’s Nightbreed: The Making of the Film was a generously-illustrated screenplay with a superb essay by Mark Salisbury and John Gilbert and a foreword by Barker, written midway through filming and therefore before everything went wrong. Consequently, there’s a mood of optimism and excitement.

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Optimism and excitement were in short supply by the time Barker did the rounds of the UK’s horror press. Interviews in FEAR, Starburst and Fangoria showed us an uncharacteristically bitter side of the normally upbeat Liverpudlian.

It was clear that what my friends and I would have seen – had it come to our local cinema – would never have fulfilled our expectations. It was a full decade before I finally caught it, late one night on terrestrial TV.

The strange thing was it felt like I’d seen it before, or like I was remembering it from a dream. I knew the story so well – I’ve probably read Cabal more than any other book – not only from the novel but from the accompanying media. But at the same time it veered sharply from my expectations, and indeed certain scenes which were in the comic – adapted from an earlier version of the screenplay and thus a vital source of events that ended up on the cutting-room floor – were not in the film. So what I saw on screen reverberated with an internal “cut” in my head, and became decidedly weird when there were scenes of which I had no expectation (the unfortunate gas station owner, some of the initial Calgary scenes). I thought I knew this film. But how could I, if I hadn’t seen it?

It was years before I caught it again, when I found the bare-bones region-free DVD, released without fanfare as if it were an embarrassment. I’ve previously written about how I like the impressionistic nature of Cabal and how very little is made explicit or fleshed out. So it’s ironic that the film version had so many blanks that the audience – providing they’d read the source text – had to imagine what happened in between. Normally in adaptations the reverse is true.

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It’s ironic that a film about the persecution of outsiders – of The Other – should have been misunderstood and then butchered by the money-men. Like the ‘Breed, the film found its own refuge: a Midian in cult-hood. It’s been described as “the first truly queer horror fantasy film epic” and even in its theatrical form clearly sides with the outsiders, the outcasts, the freaks. But in the early 90s a major studio was incapable of understanding that monsters could be sympathetic. Things are different now: Barker was simply way ahead of his time.

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So it’s hugely satisfying that Barker can finally see something which approaches his original intention. In the Director’s Cut, things are fleshed out and we get to see the true scale of Midian and – yes! – more monsters.

***

Chances are, if you’re reading this you’re familiar with the plot, but if not here’s a brief recap:

Troubled mechanic Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) suffers dreams of a mysterious place called Midian. His smooth-talking psychiatrist, Decker (David Cronenberg), persuades him that in his fugue-states during therapy he has inadvertently confessed to a string of murders. Horrified, Boone flees Calgary, leaving his singer girlfriend Lori Winston (Anne Bobby) behind. But Boone discovers that not only does Midian actually exist, and that it’s home to actual monsters, but that Decker is the real murderer. Pursued by both Decker and Lori, Boone becomes one of Midian’s inhabitants – the Nightbreed, the remnants of the Tribes of the Moon: shape-shifters and outcasts whom humanity has, for generations, persecuted and destroyed. The combined forces of law and religion gather to wipe out the Breed. Boone, who has brought this storm upon Midian, must try to save its denizens. But how far will Lori go to win back a man who’s no longer human?

***

I bought a Blu-Ray player a few years ago almost entirely in expectation of there being a UK release. Licensing issues meant that it’s taken a while, but it’s finally here. The package maybe doesn’t have quite everything the American limited edition did, but having waited so long, I’m inclined to be generous: Arrow Video have done a great job. In the box comes the blu-ray case, a double-sided poster and a 40-page booklet with essays on the film’s genesis (again by Mark Salisbury) and its themes (by Amy Simmons). The cover artwork by Gilles Vranckx (top) is superb and pays homage to the proposed cover art by Les Edwards (below) which was sadly never used at the time of the original release.

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(C) Les Edwards 1990

One disc is stuffed full of extras: over 3 hours’ worth. There’s an in-depth interview with Nicholas Vince (Kinski); an hour-long making of with most of the main cast members; deleted and alternate scenes; an analysis of how Nightbreed sits among Barker’s other work; make-up rehearsals; Bob Keen of Image Animation on the many prosthetic effects used in the film; and, as they say, much more.

The other disc contains both the theatrical and Director’s cuts (each with a commentary). The Director’s Cut has removed some 20 minutes from the theatrical version and added 40 minutes of lost footage, so it’s now a full two hours. And what an improvement.

Watching the Director’s Cut for the first time was a little odd: as with any different version of a familiar film (Star Wars, Blade Runner), your brain has to juggle what’s there with what you remember from before. It’ll take time for this new version to settle itself into my head but I’m relieved – and delighted for Clive Barker – that we finally have it, and I look forward to revisiting it over the years.

It isn’t perfect – certain directorial decisions, some of the acting and some effect limitations meant it was never going to be – but the Director’s Cut is significantly better than the Theatrical version. In places it’s like a new film. We have a longer introduction to Boone and Lori, seeing not only more of their relationship, but when Boone is forced to flee there’s now some emotional resonance where before there was just brutal editing. Most of the rest of the added footage is in the final act, so both Boone’s and Lori’s journeys to Midian still seem ludicrously straightforward given that this place is supposed to be a semi-mythic hideaway. It also means that the film still suffers from some of the rapid editing in the central part of the film.

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Oliver Parker as Peloquin

Doug Bradley, as Midian’s leader Lylesburg, has had his own voice restored. It replaces the awkward German-accented dub and along with extra footage breathes life into a previously one-dimensional character. I’m still unconvinced by the film’s timescales – everything seems to happen in far too short a time – but that’s a minor gripe. There are a few characters whose fate differs from before [spoilers: Detective Joyce, played by Highlander and Holby City‘s Hugh Quarshie, still dies; as does Hugh Ross’s entertaining Narcisse], and there’s one scene where Lylesburg’s German accent doesn’t seem to have been replaced.

Overall, the effect is like a concertina: if before we only had sight of the folded edges of the paper and had to try to guess what lay in between, now it’s been pulled wide so we can see everything that was previously hidden.

Thanks are due to everyone involved, at each stage of its convoluted rebirth. I can’t recommend this highly enough, and if you’re a horror fan and don’t have a Blu-Ray player, this should motivate you to change that.

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